How To Stand Out When Applying To The Brandery

Did you know that getting into a top tier startup accelerator is actually statistically more difficult than getting into Harvard? For its Class of 2018, Harvard accepted around 5.9% of their 34,000 applicants. In 2014, The Brandery accepted half that percentage with <2.5% of applicants being offered a spot in the program (a number we consistently see with other top-ranked peer programs).

So what should a founder do in order to get their application to stick out? After reviewing thousands of applications over our five previous classes, here are a few best practices I have seen work to help your startup stand out from the crowd. None of these are hard and fast rules, but more what I personally look at when I am reviewing our applications.

1. Become a known entity

If there were only thing that a startup could do when applying to The Brandery, this would be it. It amazes me how many startups apply for The Brandery but do not do any personal outreach. It is pretty easy to find out the decision makers behind our program. All of the founders and staff are listed on the website. All of us are very open about our contact info with emails and Twitter. And we hold a ton of events during application season where you can meet Brandery staff, alumni, and mentors in person. Yet despite this, an amazingly low number of applicants take any steps to reach out beyond their written applications. One of the keys to standing out is to have champions that believe in your team and your company. You can increase your odds of finding those champions by putting in the extra effort to meet the people behind the selection process.

2. Get a personal introduction / endorsement

Speaking of finding champions, one of the best ways to stand out from the crowd is with a warm introduction from someone in the Brandery network. We have an amazing group of mentors, investors, and alumni that are part of The Brandery family. If I get an email introduction from any of them telling me that “so and so startup is applying for The Brandery and they are awesome”, then I put that application on the top of my list. For instance, we had one application a few years ago that had a so-so initial product. But right before they applied, I received an email from an investor I trusted who said the startup had “one of the best mobile product teams” they had ever seen. Needless to say, that type of endorsement changed how I viewed the application right off the bat.

3. Do not be a “Me Too” Startup

Every year, The Brandery receives around two dozen applications that are best classified as “Me Too” Startups. The common theme of these companies is that they are a small twist on whatever the hot startup happened to be that year. When Groupon was gearing up for an IPO in 2011, we had an influx of companies with takes on the Daily Deal space. When Instagram was bought in 2012, our application inbox was flooded with photo startups. The shame with these applications is that I often don’t spend the time digging into the team because I’ve already dismissed the potential of the idea right off the bat.

4. Prove your hustle instead of telling us about it

Every startup talks about having the perfect “Hacker, Hustler, and Designer”. But it is interesting how often The Hustler actually doesn’t show their hustle. If you want to see hustle, talk to Michael Wohlschlaeger, CEO & Co-Founder of Ahalogy. When Michael applied to The Brandery, he and his wife were living in China. That year, The Brandery was having a “get to know us” happy hour during applications at a local bar in Cincinnati. Michael showed up at the event, where we learned that he flew from China to St. Louis (where his family was from) and then drove six hours from St. Louis to Cincinnati— just for the happy hour. That is the definition of hustle. I knew at that moment I would place a bet on Michael as an entrepreneur no matter what. Since Ahalogy has been ranked the fastest growing startup in Ohio the past two years, I think Michael has lived up to that reputation for hustle.

5. Apply early

Do not wait to the last minute to apply. Yes, the final deadline to apply is April 16th, but don’t make the mistake of waiting that long. All of us are reading applications as they come in, and I personally have a ranking of my top 10 applicants that is evolving in real-time. If your company has applied early, that has given me a longer time to learn about you, the company, and your team. I have been able to research the space you are playing in and talked with other investors about the opportunity. If you apply at the last minute, you are “forcing” me to make a quick decision about whether you should be a company we interview and accept.

All that being said, applications to the Class of 2015 are open now. The deadline is April 16.

Don’t Bet Against The Midwest

If I was to share the following facts with you, what part of the US would you think I’m talking about:

  • Represents over 20% of the US GDP
  • Nearly 25% of all research in the US is done here and 25% of all patents in the US are granted here
  • In the last 5 years, 52 companies that are based here have either gone public or been acquired for over $1 Billion.  In total, these 52 companies represent over $140 Billion of aggregate shareholder value
  • 1 day car drive to 60% of the US population

While the headline of this post obviously gives it away, most people would see these figures and think of Silicon Valley or possibly the Northeast.  But instead, these facts are about the Midwest and its why I decided to plant my own entrepreneurial flag here with Rockfish and The Brandery.  And thankfully I’m not alone in that sentiment with stories like:

Since the downturn of 2008 – 2009, a pretty amazing entrepreneurial renaissance has started across the Midwest.  The stats above prove it and it’s something I’ve watched first-hand since leaving P&G in 2010.  When we opened the Rockfish office in Cincinnati, the company had ~70 people total and our office was just three of us.  Fast forward to today and Rockfish is nearly 4x that size and the Cincinnati office is now nearly 80 people.  And at The Brandery, we are graduating our 5th class of companies next year and nearly 60% of those Startups have stayed in Cincinnati after graduation.

Yet the interesting thing is that despite this existing foundation of success, there is untapped potential for the Startup investment community.  Case in point is that only 7% of the venture capital in the US is invested in the Midwest.  And that is despite that 25% of research here.  And despite the $140 billion in aggregate shareholder value created here.  Warren Buffett famously said to “Be Fearful When Others Are Greedy and Greedy When Others Are Fearful.”  While I don’t believe it is fear in this case, the essence of Buffett’s wisdom holds true when it comes to the potential in the Midwest.

This same untapped potential exists for Brand Marketers as well.  The reason 25% of patents are issued in the Midwest are because of our concentration of Fortune 500 (P&G, Ford, etc), research universities (University of Michigan, Northwestern, Ohio State University), and startups.  And that means we don’t need to travel across the country to find startups that are driving the next wave of innovation.  We can find it in our own backyards by visiting and partnering with Startup Accelerators like The Brandery in Cincinnati, Tech Incubators like 1871 in Chicago, or Venture Capitalists like Drive Capital in Columbus.  We just have to raise our hands and get involved as marketers.

Finally, part of the inspiration in writing this post was the announcement today that my friend and mentor Wendy Lea is going to be moving to the Midwest (Cincinnati in particular) to take the role of CEO for Cintrifuse.  Wendy is one of the most respected leaders in the Startup community and her belief in the potential of our region is further proof of the Entrepreneurial Renaissance that is underway.

The Value of Wearing Two Hats

Every day in business, I wear two hats (metaphorically of course).  The first hat is in the agency world as the Chief Marketing Officer at Rockfish.  The second hat is in the start-up investor world, both as the co-founder of The Brandery and as a partner in Vine St Ventures.  While these two professions have more differences than similarities, I know I am better at both jobs because of the other.

On the agency side, each day is spent uncovering the marketing and business pain points of our clients.  These pain points create opportunities which start up companies can capitalize on by providing the solution.  As an investor, I often have one of the first opportunities to evaluate the start-ups that are looking to provide that solution.  Well before they hit the pages of Mashable or the New York Times, many of these start-ups are pitching investors.  In the investment world, venture firms often talk about “proprietary deal flow” where they get a first look at investment opportunities.  In much the same way, being involved directly in the start-up investment space gives Rockfish proprietary deal flow to bring digital innovation to our clients.

Being a practitioner in the world of marketing helps me be a subject matter expert when it comes to brand marketing.  In turn, I become more valuable as an investor because of the subject matter expertise I can bring to start-ups.  And ultimately, the value comes full circle as I can better help the digital innovation strategy of my clients to identify opportunities.

Wearing two hats in your professional life definitely requires double the work.  But at the same time, the return you get for both jobs clearly proves the old saying of “one plus one equals three.”

Happy #LeapDay

February 29th might be known as Leap Day every 4 years, but today it takes on another meaning with the launch of Leap for the iPhone.  As a graduate of The Brandery in 2011, Leap is a pretty remarkable company.  They entered the program as Wellthy, but ended up pivoting midway through.  Today that pivot comes to life and I couldn’t be more excited for what the team has accomplished.

So what is Leap exactly?

Leap lets you create challenges with your friends and compete by snapping photos and earning points.  Whatever your interests are, there is a challenge that you can create on Leap to help you reach your goals, motivate your friends to try new things, eat healthier meals, or get the most out of your Friday night.  Leap comes with filled with fun challenges from Hipster Hunt, where you compete by snapping photos of hipsters in your city, to Breakfast Champion, a simple challenge to make sure you eat the most important meal of the day.

Congrats to James Dickerson, Ryan Tinker and Nick Cramer, the three co-founders of Leap.  Be sure to head over to the App Store to download Leap and wish them a happy #leapday on Twitter.

We’re hosting Brandery Office Hours at SXSW

Ever since Twitter received a much needed boost in visibility at the festival, SXSW Interactive has become an annual launching pad for aspiring startups.  This year, The Brandery has decided to join in the fun as we host our first-ever “Office Hours” at this year’s SXSW.  At Office Hours, we wanted to give potential applicants the opportunity to meet many of the folks that make The Brandery a top 10 startup accelerator.  Since our mentors and partners are from across the country, SXSW is the perfect venue to come together in one place and host this type of event.

Thus on Sunday Afternoon of SXSW Interactive, we are going to host Office Hours at the #SxCincyHaus.  This is a chance for us to meet face to face with the companies who are applying to The Brandery.  Last year over three quarters of our companies relocated to Cincinnati for The Brandery so we know how important it is for founders to feel comfortable with the program.  To help with that, we will have our mentors, as well as past graduates at Office Hours to answer any and all questions that founders might have.  We will also share some of the things that make The Brandery unique, especially our thematic approach around design and marketing, as well as our corporate partnerships with leading marketers like Procter & Gamble.

We hope to see you there.

  • WHO:  Startup Founders & Entrepreneurs who want to apply to The Brandery
  • WHEN: Sunday, March 11 from 2 – 4 PM CST
  • WHERE: #SxCincyHaus at 711 San Antonio St, Austin TX
  • WHAT: Register at